Two of the big surprisers meet for a Preliminary Final spot as the Parramatta Eels host the North Queensland Cowboys on Saturday at ANZ Stadium.

LAST TIME OUT
Very few gave Parramatta a chance last week in Melbourne; although they didn’t win, they proved they can go toe-to-toe against the very best. The Eels were simply brilliant and perhaps very unlucky not to leave Melbourne with the victory and a week off. With all the talk and focus on Melbourne Storm captain Cameron Smith’s record-breaking day, the Eels seemed to be a little off-focus early in the match; the Storm got on the board early from a pass that appeared to travel forward from Curtis Scott – but was let go – and Josh Addo-Carr crossed for the first four-pointer of the day. It all went pear-shaped quickly for Melbourne when Cameron Munster was sent to the bin for a professional foul; Parramatta quickly responded through barnstorming centre Kirisome Auva’a, which levelled the score at 4-4. Parramatta found the lead soon after with a delicious pass from their young halfback Mitchell Moses to fullback Will Smith and the score was 10-4 at the break. Five minutes into the second half, Melbourne pulled off something special; a poor pass on the last tackle, which should have been dealt with by the Eels, became a try 10 passes later when Kenny Bromwich crashed over to make it 10-10. Melbourne found their lead again through another last-play miracle, Addo-Carr grubbered in the in-goal for champion fullback Billy Slater to plant down the ball to put Melbourne back in front. Cameron Smith then put Melbourne 18-10 up through a penalty goal. Parramatta pulled off one of their own miracles with Semi Radradra crashing over to cut the deficit to two, but it was too little too late.

The North Queensland Cowboys quickly silenced all the doubters with a gutsy 15-14 extra time victory over the Cronulla Sharks. An injury-rattled Cowboys side – missing their co-captains Jonathan Thurston and Matt Scott – proved that if you hang in there for long enough, anything can happen. The defending premiers Cronulla were expected to walk through to the second week and it looked that way after halfback Chad Townsend crossed early: after a James Maloney conversion and penalty goal, they were 8-0 up. Just before the interval, Maloney’s controversial sin binning for holding gifted the Cowboys two points and the score was 8-2 at the half. The Cowboys were next to score through heroic winger Kyle Feldt and suddenly it was game on. Midway through the second half, departing centre Jack Bird put Cronulla eight points up with a determined kick chase. The Cowboys’ season was fading, so step up the 2016 Dally M medal winner Jason Taumalolo, who beat a mountain of Sharks players to force himself over the line to score and get his side within two. Cue the controversy, a loose ball resulted in a penalty to the Cowboys in front of the sticks to level the scores with five minutes remaining. Then, in the final minute of regular time, Sharks captain Paul Gallen carried the ball very close to the line in great field position, a Cowboys hand appeared to jolt the ball free but referee Ashley Klein ruled it was a lost ball and we were headed to overtime. Michael Morgan was the iceman as he put the Cowboys 15-14 up late in the first period of extra time. For the premiers, time was fading and the final set of the game saw them in good field position but prop Andrew Fifita could not replicate his heroics from last year’s grand final as he drifted sideways and lost the ball which sent the Cowboys to week two.

Key Battle
It’s basically Jason Taumalolo against the Eels; if Taumalolo is stopped then Parramatta will find their night a lot easier. Taumalolo was simply terrific against the Sharks, the man mountain ran for 259 metres, made 37 tackles with no misses, scored a try, made a line break and eight tackle breaks in an amazing performance. Taumalolo has become so integral to the Cowboys and Parramatta will need to stop him. The Eels shut out the Melbourne forward pack nicely and forced so many errors, they also have one of the fiercest packs in the competition. Beau Scott is their reply to Taumalolo, Scott doesn’t make as many metres as Taumalolo does but you cannot question the part he plays for the Eels squad. Parramatta will head into this game with a load of confidence and if they can limit Taumalolo they probably win this game.

Prediction
North Queensland playing 90 minutes of football, travelling to Sydney, back to Townsville and then back to Sydney on a five-day turnaround is going to be a challenge, but the main challenge is a red-hot Parramatta side who took Melbourne all the way. An in-form Parramatta playing in front of the blue-and-gold faithful should give them the mental edge. Corey Norman and Mitchell Moses are in the form of their lives and have clicked in the halves to get Parra rolling, while, just quietly, so have Cowboys halves Te Marie Martin and Michael Morgan. Parramatta should prove to be too strong and head to an all-Sydney Preliminary Final against the Sydney Roosters, but Parra beware because you just never write off the Cowboys.
Eels by eight.

Squads
Eels team: 1. Will Smith 2. Semi Radradra 3. Michael Jennings 4. Brad Takairangi 5. Kirisome Auva’a 6. Corey Norman 7. Mitchell Moses 8. Daniel Alvaro 9. Cameron King 10. Tim Mannah 11. Manu Ma’u 12. Tepai Moeroa 13. Nathan Brown Interchange: 14. Beau Scott 15. Kenny Edwards 16. Siosaia Vave 17. Suaia Matagi 18. Kaysa Pritchard 19. Peni Terepo 20. David Gower 21. Josh Hoffman

Cowboys team: 1. Lachlan Coote 2. Kyle Feldt 3. Javid Bowen 4. Kane Linnett 5. Antonio Winterstein 6. Te Maire Martin 7. Michael Morgan 8. John Asiata 9. Jake Granville 10. Scott Bolton 11. Gavin Cooper 12. Ethan Lowe 13. Jason Taumalolo 14. Ben Hampton 15. Coen Hess 16. Corey Jensen 17. Shaun Fensom 18. Ray Thompson 19. Justin O’Neill 20. Braeden Uele 21. Patrick Mago